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Big-City Weirdness 

Thursday, Mar 20 2003

Imagine a private-eye novel in which the case being investigated is imaginary, and the person looking into it borderline crazy, and you'll have a fair notion of Jim Knipfel's The Buzzing. Not that it's really a detective novel. The hero, Roscoe Baragon, is a reporter on the "kook" beat at the New York Sentinel, where he pens daily dispatches about voodoo curses, mysterious abductions, and secret wars so clandestine that nobody, including his exasperated editor, has ever heard of them. Once a hotshot reporter of conventional news — Pentagon scandals and the like — Baragon is now a one-man journalistic sideshow of genial nuttiness, a Japanese-monster-movie addict and alcoholic sad sack who prizes his job at the Sentinel only because it's the last New York office in which you're still allowed to smoke.

Scared of losing his job, desperate to break a big, serious story, Baragon is suddenly spotting sinister patterns everywhere. (Not what his editor had in mind, of course.) A radioactive homeless man has turned up in a morgue; toga-wearing slumlords, part of a mysterious group called Seatopian Vigilante Action, are abducting people from SROs; there's been a rash of earthquakes worldwide; and a NASA satellite that may or may not be contaminated by space bacteria is plummeting to Earth. And all of this is not only being connected in Baragon's increasingly unhinged head, it's also getting mixed up with the plots from movies like The Green Slime or Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.

Baragon is a hero right out of Knipfel's popular Slackjaw column for New York Press, a weekly valentine to big-city weirdness, as well as his well-received memoirs, Slackjaw and Quitting the Nairobi Trio, which describe, among other things, the author's deteriorating eyesight and sojourns in the "bughouse." And thanks to Knipfel's skill as a writer — he's both a humorist and an effortless storyteller — the plot seems much less absurd while you're reading the book than it does in summary. In fact, dare I say it, there are moments when you actually think Baragon might be onto something.

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THE BUZZING | By JIM KNIPFEL | Vintage Books 288 pages | $9.60 paperback

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